Release Your Belief in Lack

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Over the Christmas and New Year season, I hope you had a chance to step away from the routine madness and look with fresh eyes on some of the beliefs, habits and messages you acquired over the past year. One that came home to me in many ways over the past month was that niggling belief in scarcity and limitation. 

Even though it’s the season for love and charity, we are constantly reminded that we live in a world that is scarce in both. Organisations are pleading for donations, gifts, assistance and meals for those who can’t afford the basics for survival, and the news graphically witnesses to a lack of generosity in human nature. It’s difficult not to feel guilty about having more when so many have less. Yet before being generous with our money, time or love, we often first ask, ‘What’s the minimum I can give that won’t impact on my own needs?’

Serial social entrepreneur Nic Frances in his book The End of Charity (2008) calls this type of giving, ‘…the leftovers – the spare cash’. It’s the mindset that encourages us to share the least amount of money or effort, or the smallest time commitment, even in situations where we know it is needed, for fear of being left with not enough for ourselves. 

The termite in your mind

Like termites in the walls of a house, thoughts of scarcity eat away at the foundation of our thinking, often without us realising they are even there. Scarcity thinking is a theme on this website because until you see it for what it is, your belief that are limited or that you experience lack, will continue. I’m constantly surprised at how thinking that I am lacking in some way, leads me to react and protect what's mine. 
This desire of the brain to protect us from limitation is triggered by strong emotions to the fear of not having enough. These fears arouse the brain’s limbic system, which “…tracks your emotional relationship to thoughts, objects, people and events. It determines how you feel about the world moment to moment. It drives your behaviour, often quite unconsciously.”1

Thoughts of not having enough, or not being enough, trigger strong emotions which alert your amygdala that danger is afoot. The amygdala is a region within the limbic system responsible for deciding whether to trigger the fight or flight response based on the strength of your emotional response to the data streaming into your brain. 

The Fear Of Missing Out

When you think you might miss out on something you believe is essential to your life, you are indicating to your brain that your very survival is at risk. The more emotional you are about it, the more it arouses the limbic system about the potential danger.  Your brain has a deeply wired survival response to minimise danger and protect you from loss. Its primary operating principle is ‘minimise danger, maximise reward’2 so believing that your safety is at risk if you lack something you want, places your brain in a state of instant attentiveness.

If the emotional response to missing out is strong enough, the amygdala triggers the flight or fight response. Deciding to fight, you justify and defend your right not to give more than you want to, protecting what is yours.  A flight response may mean you avoid those seeking your assistance or refuse to think about giving to someone. Either way, your brain is directing your behaviour through its fast and automatic reflexive system; a system built on responding to fear responses by defending yourself or moving away from the threat.

A story about lack thinking

In my Last Blog, I described a promising business opportunity that was being interrupted by an event which, at the time, was sitting on the periphery of my life. Without warning, that event escalated into a more serious financial and time commitment, one that now occupies the vast majority of my attention.

From the outside, I was a participant in a drama that was not mine but that I had become inextricably involved in. On the surface I responded as required. But inside, my lack thinking termites were steadily and silently munching away at my belief that I was going to manage this without personal loss.

As the uncertainty rose, they gnawed away at my confidence that I would not miss out on the promising opportunities I had lined up. The more decisions I felt pushed to make away from what I wanted, the more insistent became the nibbling until like an infestation, every thought was cracking and popping with beliefs that no matter what I did give – time, resources, commitment or energy – there would not be enough left over for me.

Uncertain and Out of Control

There are many situations in life where we feel uncertain about the future. The more uncertain we are, the more out of control we feel. It’s difficult to express confidence and a belief that things will be okay when your brain is sensing nothing but danger and pushing you to run and hide, or stand and fight.

If you think about the last time you felt certain about something – a job you did well, or a person you know you helped, you might recall the ‘feel good’ sensation that came with that feeling of certainty. The brain reacts to certainty as a reward, because the brain is a pattern making, prediction machine. Every time you accurately predict anything, whether it is a word in a crossword puzzle or the beat to a favourite song, your brain releases dopamine, the reward chemical of the brain.

Control is rewarding!

Your brain also recognises having choices as a reward. Even the perception of a choice, is a reward for the brain. But feeling out of control triggers a threat response, and results in a loss of function in the brain’s prefrontal cortex which is where we do our planning, organising, judging and prioritising. When I felt at I had lost autonomy over my decision-making, and control over the outcome, my brain sensed a lack of autonomy and it struggled to make sense of the situation and plan rationally for it. 
The part of the brain that reacts so strongly to uncertainty and autonomy has the same neural networks as primary survival threats, like seeing an angry face, or being thirsty or hungry. The more I told myself I was operating on scarce resources, could not plan for the future and felt out of control, the more my brain registered a threat to my very survival. Any form of lack thinking feeds this threat response like wood feeds a termite. 

Brain is the driver of behaviour

While the brain is an efficient machine for driving behaviour based on its response to threats and rewards, it is not the best guide to behaviour. Thoughts of lack and scarcity drive us towards seeking rewards to improve our survival. This seeking is like an appetite to get things. If we fear we are missing out, we stimulate an appetite for more status, more control or more security. Our brain is telling us at every turn that scarcity is a real thing and we need to protect ourselves by getting more of what we think we lack. However, like the termites in the foundation left to have their fun, lack thinking will lead you to a hollowed-out existence. It’s hard to experience joy and gratitude when all you see are the holes in the walls.

Mind is the guide to your thinking

If the brain is the driver of threat and reward behaviour, can we use our thinking to guide behaviour? And if we can, how do we do that? Thinking, and the self-regulation of thoughts influence the brain, which changes the behaviours we engage in, but where thoughts come from are still a mystery. Many scientists believe that the brain is responsible for the creation of thought. Others believe that thoughts come from the mind – a sort-of energy field that exists outside of the brain and body, linked to will. There is no hard evidence for either view, so you can decide what feels more right to you. 
Regardless of where thoughts come from, both sides agree that how you choose to think about a situation results in your brain registering a threat or reward, and driving your behaviour away from a stimulus or towards it. By actively choosing to think more mindfully, at a higher level than the base survival function of the amygdala, I can enlist my higher mind to over-rule my brain’s instinctive threat focus.

“Only those who have a real and lasting sense of abundance can be truly charitable.3” 

If we hold a worldview of lack and scarcity, abundance thinking can seem a bit trite. Even so, finding a ‘real and lasting sense’ of abundance does not mean waiting for money, or a secure job, or a thousand friends on FaceBook to fall from the sky. These are all external forms of abundance which are transient and impermanent. We’ve all seen money, jobs, friends and relationships come and go as life moves on. 
As our brains are hypervigilant when it comes to identifying threats, responding faster and at much lower levels than rewards, you must consciously decide to over-ride your fear of lack if you want to experience a sense of abundance. If you don’t remove it as a major block and impediment to your life, you simply have allowed your fears to drive your behaviour.

Being truly charitable in any circumstance, relies on me not believing that your gain will mean my loss. But to get there, I must make a clear decision to remove the idea of loss and scarcity from my life. Gradually, as I see the blocks I put up to discovering a real and lasting sense of abundance, I might just discover it was sitting there all along. 

Here’s to seeing the world anew,

1.Rock, D. Your Brain at Work (2009)
2. Dr Evian Gordon 
3. A Course in Miracles